Lost in the political hoopla this year is something that heartens millions of handicapped Americans -- the disabilities of three men whose significant political power has made their handicaps the last thing you notice.
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) was Senate leader of the Iran-contra investigating committee.
The absence of an arm, lost in World War II action, did not impede Inouye from reaching such heights and, once there, effectively leading the Senate portion of the investigation. If anything, the handicap became such quiet testimony of his own patriotism that it dampened the spit and polish of Ollie North and provided for an eloquent summation by the senator after the colonel had flaunted his medals. Now it is likely that Inouye will be elected the Senate majority leader next year.
The second man is Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), who is giving Vice President George Bush a real run for the presidential nomination. As a result of a World War II battle, Dole has little use of his right arm, no use of his right hand and not enough feeling in his left hand to tell the difference between a dime and a quarter.
The third man, Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), is emerging as a prominent and potent political leader. He is the No. 3 man in the House hierarchy, the majority whip. His ''disability'' -- if the word fits any of the men -- is not worn on the outside. He is an epileptic.
At age 22, Coelho was poised to enter the seminary and study for the Roman Catholic priesthood. Then he learned he had epilepsy. The church would not accept epileptic priests.
Friends introduced the despondent Coelho to comedian Bob Hope, who took Coelho under his wing. Hope urged him into politics, and Coelho spent 15 years on the staff of Rep. B. F. Sisk. When Sisk retired, Coelho ran for his seat and won.
Today he serves as a quiet counselor, a surrogate minister, to members of Congress who want to confide their problems. He is also particularly attuned to the causes of the downtrodden.
Far from whining about his invisible ''handicap,'' Coelho credits it with helping him to achieve the success he enjoys. ''To a great extent,'' he told us, ''because of my epilepsy, I have a tremendous inner peace. And that reflects in everything I do.''
Without any fanfare, he has established his own foundation to help epileptics develop job skills, adjust to their disability and ''destroy these negative myths that we have about disabilities in general and epilepsy specifically,'' Coelho said.
For him, it is vital to be a role model. ''All of a sudden, people with epilepsy, or loved ones of epileptics, see that if you can make it, then why can't they? This is the key thing that you can do,'' Coelho said.
Bob Dole once found it difficult to talk about his handicap. It didn't even come up in conversations with his wife. Coelho privately preached to him the virtue of proclaiming it, instead of ignoring it.
Most people ''learn to live with a disability. You accept it and you don't talk about it,'' Coelho said. ''If you're open -- as I'd been urging Dole to be more open about it -- you become a role model.''
Dole does inspire others at the rehabilitation centers he visits on the campaign trail when he talks about the years of struggle from total paralysis to the activity he enjoys today. His message is: ''Strength through adversity.''
Like Coelho, Dole has formed his own foundation for the handicapped. He did that in 1983. The genesis was a meeting with two severely disabled young people in Dodge City, Kan. Both were in wheelchairs and couldn't move much more than their eyes.
Dole recalled, ''Back home, I sat in our bedroom and told Elizabeth how deeply moved I had been by this encounter. 'I've been meaning for years to start a foundation for disabled persons,' I said, 'and I haven't done it. This is the time.' '' His foundation has raised about $4 million to help the disabled with job training and placement.
These men of different politics -- Inouye, Dole and Coelho -- have made it a banner year for the estimated 36 million disabled Americans.